Tuesday, October 3, 2017
Born in 1922 on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, Gertrude ‘Gertie’ Boyarski was a teenager in the town of Dereczyn (Derechin), Poland. She lived a lived a quiet life with her family until the Germans invaded in 1941. Though the Nazis forced the majority of the town's Jews into a ghetto, they regarded Gertie's father – a butcher and a housepainter – as a 'useful' Jew, so the Boyarskis were moved to a guarded building just in front of the ghetto's entrance.
On July 24, 1942, a night of terror descended on the ghetto. The Germans began a mass killing of the town’s 3,000-4,000 Jews. The Boyarski family managed to escape to a nearby forest, where they hoped to join a partisan unit. To prove themselves to the partisans, Gertie's father, brother, and other Jews had to return completely bare-handed and attack the town's police station. They were successful, killing the guards and taking the station's stash of weapons and ammunition. However, in the months that followed, Gertie and her family remained in a family camp with other noncombatant refugees. The camp lacked protection, and Gertie saw her mother, father, sister, and brother murdered before her eyes in surprise attacks by German soldiers and antisemitic Poles who hunted the woods for Jews.
Bereft of family and seeking revenge, she left the shelter of the family camp and sought to join a partisan detachment under the leadership of the Russian Commander Pavel Bulak, who initially brushed her off. But Gertie was insistent, saying, “I want to fight and take revenge for my whole family.”
Impressed by her conviction, Bulak agreed under one condition: she would have to stand guard alone, for two weeks, a mile from the partisan encampment. “I was alone in the woods ... each time I heard a little noise I thought it’s Germans… Two weeks – it was like two years.” But Gertie persisted and was accepted into the group. She fought with the partisans for three years, aggressively attacking German soldiers who came to the surrounding villages.
Gertrude went on to win the Soviet Union’s highest military honor, the order of Lenin. In honor of International Women's Day, Gertie and her friend - both teens - volunteered for a dangerous mission to demolish a wooden bridge used by the Germans. They had no supplies, so they hiked to a local village and asked for kerosene and straw. When told there was none in the village, Gertrude and her friends unslung their rifles and gave the villagers five minutes to find the supplies. The villagers quickly complied.
Gertie and her friend snuck up to the bridge, prepared and lit the fire. German soldiers saw the blaze and started shooting. In response, the girls grabbed burning pieces of the bridge and tossed them into the river until the bridge was destroyed. "We didn't chicken out," says Gertie.
For more on Gertrude Boyarski, please see our short biography, as well as the short film Jewish Women in the Partisans, and our study guide, "Gertrude Boyarski: From Frail Girl to Partisan Fighter."
Gertrude passed away at the age of 90 on September 17th, 2012 – the first day of Rosh Hashanah of that year.
Friday, September 29, 2017
— Marisa Diena.
Marisa Diena was born in Turin, Italy, on September 29, 1916. Marisa was eight years old when Benito Mussolini became dictator of Italy and was taught to love Fascism. In 1938, Italy passed its first Racial Laws, in imitation of the Nazi Racial Purity laws, which banned Jews from working in the public sector or attending public school. In 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France, and by 1942, Turin was being bombed on an almost daily basis. By 1943, Italy was in a state of virtual civil war. Mussolini was deposed and Italy surrendered following the allied invasion of Sicily. Germany responded by seizing control of Northern and Central Italy and reinstating Mussolini as the head of a new puppet regime.
After the Nazis occupied Turin, Marisa fled into the mountains around Torre Pellice to join the partisans. The role of women in the Italian partisans was unique; since most of the male partisans were army deserters, only women were able to move during the day without arousing suspicion. As a result, Marisa became the vice-commander of information for her unit. During the day, she would ride her bicycle around the countryside, collecting information from local informers. Each night she would report back to her commander. In addition to sabotage and guerrilla warfare, Italian partisans tried to keep order in the war-ravaged countryside. Marisa’s unit created local community committees in the Torre Pellice region to distribute rations and helped organize strikes among industrial workers in cities like Turin.
In the spring of 1945, the estimated 300,000 partisans working in Northern Italy organized a national liberation committee. On April 25th, 1945, Marisa’s partisan unit liberated Turin, while their comrades in other major cities did the same. After the war, as Italian democracy began to blossom, Marisa remained engaged in politics, witnessing the ratification of the new Italian Constitution in 1948. Marisa remained in Italy, sharing her experience as a partisan with elementary school children. She passed away on May 8th, 2013.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Marisa Diena, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan.
Saturday, August 19, 2017
— Brenda Senders.
Brenda Senders was born in 1925 in the town of Sarny, then part of Polish territory. She was the daughter of a forester, and one of two sisters (the third died during a dysentery epidemic in the ‘30s). Her father was a respected man in the community, and had helped many of the peasants build their houses. During the First World War, he had served as a translator in the German territories. The impression he took away of the Germans as a cultured people prevented him from taking any rumors of Nazi atrocities seriously.
Sarny was located far to the east, on the Sluch River. Consequently, it fell under Soviet control in 1939. As it was for many partisans, the most prominent impact from the Soviet occupation for Brenda was that she spent two years learning the Russian language. But everything changed in the summer of ’41, when the Nazis occupied Sarny and forced all its Jews into a ghetto.
In 1942, the Nazis closed the ghetto and sent the remaining inhabitants to a death camp. A few electricians managed to smuggle a pair of wire cutters into the camp and cut a hole in the fencing, allowing Brenda, her sister, and hundreds of other prisoners to escape. Many of the escapees were caught, but Brenda and her sister knew the surroundings well and ran straight for the Sluch River, crossing it into the forest. Eventually, Brenda made it to a nearby village, where she sought out her grandfather’s neighbors for help. Initially, Brenda and her sister were separated during the escape, but luckily Brenda found her hiding at the neighbors’, along with her uncle.
After several months in hiding, Brenda connected with a large Soviet-backed partisan unit, made up of 1600 people. Although she was unarmed, Brenda’s determination to fight convinced the partisan general that she was fit to join. She left her sister hiding with a local peasant, and learned how to shoot a gun and ride a horse. She then joined the partisan cavalry, and became one of the general’s bodyguards.
Brenda’s unit was constantly on the move. They occupied villages, conducted ambushes, shot passing German troops, blew up bases, and obliterated bridges and train tracks. “We didn’t let [the Nazis] rest day or night,” Brenda recalled proudly.
After the war, Brenda left Russia, escaping through Slovakia into Austria. She ended up in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Braunau Am Inn, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, where she was reunited with her sister. In the DP camp, Brenda met her future husband, Leon Senders, a former partisan from the famed Avengers unit. Brenda and Leon married in 1945 and left for Italy, eventually immigrating to the United States that same year. Brenda passed away in September of 2013; Leon passed away earlier that year, in July. They are survived by three children and seven grandchildren.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Brenda Senders, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan.
Thursday, August 10, 2017
Leah, with her mother Chasia, and her three younger siblings Charles, Sonia, and Benjamin, tried early on to escape from their oppressors. They were taken in by sympathetic farmers on the outskirts of town where they hid for a short period of time. The state soon decreed that all Jews would be confined in ghettos. The farmers could no longer safely harbor the family, so the Bedzowskis were forced to return to Lida and imprisoned in the ghetto.
Their passport to freedom arrived in a letter from family friend Tuvia Bielski, encouraging the Bedzowskis to join his brigade in the forest. Tuvia and his brothers had escaped the massacre and were hidden deep in the woods. Determined to save as many Jews as possible, the Bielski group was welcoming all escaped Jews into their encampment.
The Bedzowskis readily accepted Tuvia’s help. Tuvia sent a guide to escort the family out of the ghetto. The group traveled by night in silence, past guard dogs, under barbed wire, and often on their hands and knees. When they reached the forest, their guide told them, “You are going to live.” Leah and her family joined the Bielski Brigade that night.
Leah took on the necessary duties of the encampment including food-finding missions and guard duty. She was never safe until the war’s end, Leah and her fellow partisans in the Bielski brigade found themselves fighting and sometimes fleeing the German army. On one occasion, the Bedzowski family were separated from the rest of the group as the German army advanced towards them. As they and a few families despondently sat under a tree, wondering what would become of them, a group of young Jewish partisan men came upon them. One of the men was Velvel “Wolf” Yanson, a Jewish partisan from another brigade. Velvel left his group to become the protector of the Bedzowski family. He helped them return to the Bielski group where he became known as “Wolf the Machine Gunner.” “It is thanks to his fortitude and strength that my mother Chasia, brothers Chonon (Charles) and Benjamin, as well as the other families whom he encountered under the tree were all saved” says Leah. “If it wasn’t for him, my family would have perished and the Bedzowski/Bedzow name would have vanished for eternity.”
Leah currently lives in Florida, where she continues to be active in the Jewish community and lectures extensively about her Jewish partisan experience. She insists that not only her grandchildren and great-grandchildren know her story, but also anyone she can reach out to, especially the younger generation. “Fight for your rights. Know who you are. This is my legacy,” she says.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Leah Johnson, including five videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan. Visit jewishpartisans.org/defiance to see JPEF’s short documentary films and educational materials on the Bielski partisans.
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
For two years, with Lubomi under the Soviets, Sarah grew up against the backdrop of war with worries about her family’s future. Then in 1941, her small Polish town fell under German occupation following Operation Barbarossa, Germany's attack on the Soviet Union. Sarah and her family were confined to the ghetto alongside the other members of the Jewish community.
When the Nazis began killing Jews in the ghetto, it did not take long for the news to spread. Sarah's brother and several male friends escaped to join a partisan group, but this group only accepted young men – so the open forest was the only hope for Sarah and her parents. They hid among the trees where they survived in freezing temperatures for months.
Eventually, Sarah and her family made contact with a nearby Russian partisan group through the help of a sympathetic local peasant. Fortunately, her uncle Tzvi was a trained scout. The Russians needed his life-long knowledge of the surrounding terrain, and accepted the entire family into their group. Thus Sara began her new life in the forest encampment that served as a base for sabotage and resistance missions.
Sarah was renamed Sonia by the partisans, for 'Sarah' is not a common Russian name and would have exposed her to danger from various anti-Semitic elements. Early on, Sonia was assigned to guard duty and providing first-aid on missions to mine enemy train tracks. With little training, Sonia learned the skills of a field-hospital aide, treating the wounds of injured partisans, using whatever makeshift supplies were available.
In the winter of 1943-44, Sonia’s battalion joined eleven others to establish a winter camp deeper in the forest. The camp had several thousand members and her duties were transferred to the camp’s hospital. Sonia recalls her day-to-day experience there:
In 1944, Sonia and her parents faced the decision of either leaving the partisans or joining the Red Army. They decided to leave the partisans and took refuge in an abandoned house. They were unaware that the house was infected with typhus, which soon claimed Sonia’s mother, leaving only Sonia and her father.
As the war ended, Sonia focused her energy on getting to America. These days, Sonia lives in Northern California. But the past is never far away. “I miss my family every minute of the day,” Sonia says. “I see them always before my eyes.”
Sonia defiantly proclaims. “I want young people to know we were fighting back and that you can always find a way to fight back against injustice, racism, or anti-Semitism. If I was going to get killed, I was going to get killed as a fighter and not because I am a Jew. That itself gave me strength to go on.
Sonia realized that while terror was raging around her, kindness always managed to shine through. “I feel great respect for the Russian people who were so brave and helpful to us,” Sonia says. “Life is very precious. Even though the world is cruel, there are some good people and they should not be forgotten.”
She continues to share her experiences - most recently, she participated in our live Q&A Partisan Webcast. Over twenty schools tuned in to watch. She was also featured in several of the winning essays from our 2012 Youth Writing Contest - click here to read them. Pictured below is Sonia with last year's contest winner EJ Weiss:
Sonia has written about her experiences in the partisans in her book Here, There Are No Sarahs: A Woman's Courageous Fight Against the Nazis and Her Bittersweet Fulfillment of the American Dream, available on Amazon.
Thursday, April 13, 2017
— Faye Schulman.
Faye Schulman was born to a large family on November 28, 1919 in Lenin, Poland. She learned photography from her brother Moishe and assisted him in his photography business.
On August 14, 1942, the Germans killed 1,850 Jews from the Lenin ghetto, including Faye's parents, sisters and younger brother. They spared only 26 people that day, among them was Faye for her photographic abilities. The Germans ordered Faye to develop their photographs of the massacre. Secretly, she also made copies for herself.
During a partisan raid, Faye fled to the forests and joined the Molotava Brigade, a partisan group made mostly of escaped Soviet Red Army POWs.
She was accepted because her brother-in-law had been a doctor and they were desperate for anyone with experience in medicine. Faye served the group as a nurse from September 1942 to July 1944, even though she had no previous medical experience, assisting the camp’s doctor, a veterinarian.
During a raid on Lenin, Faye succeeded in recovering her old photography equipment. During the next two years, she took over a hundred photographs, developing the medium format negatives under blankets and making “sun prints” during the day. On missions Faye buried the camera and tripod to keep it safe. Her photos show a rare side of partisan activity – one is of a funeral scene where two Jewish partisans are being buried alongside Russian partisans, despite the intense antisemitism in the group. In another image, Schulman and three young Jewish men smile joyously after an unexpected reunion in the forest—each believing that the other had been killed.
"I want people to know that there was resistance. Jews did not go like sheep to the slaughter. I was a photographer. I have pictures. I have proof.” She is the only known Jewish partisan photographer.
After liberation, Faye married Morris Schulman, another Jewish partisan. Faye and Morris enjoyed a prosperous life as decorated Soviet partisans, but wanted to leave Pinsk, Poland, which reminded them of a "graveyard." Morris and Faye lived in the Landsberg Displaced Persons Camps in Germany for the next three years, and immigrated to Canada in 1948.
Today Faye lives in Toronto, Canada and shares her experiences with diverse audiences. She has two children and six grandchildren.
The photographs she took during the war have been turned into a traveling photography exhibition entitled Pictures of Resistance: The Wartime Photography of Jewish Partisan Faye Schulman. The exhibit is produced by the Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation and curated by Jill Vexler, Ph.D. In 2010, her book A Partisan's Memoir: Woman of the Holocaust was published.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Faye Schulman, including six videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan and information about the Pictures of Resistance exhibit.
Monday, March 13, 2017
"Resist, resist, to our last breath!" - Abba Kovner (z''l) and Vitka Kempner (z''l) galvanized resistance in the Vilnius Ghetto
In honor of their shared March 14th birthdays, JPEF highlights Abba Kovner and Vitka Kempner, partisans from the Vilnius Ghetto who eventually married.
Abba Kovner was born in 1918 in Sebastopol, Russia. His family eventually emigrated and he spent his high school years in Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania — the preeminent center of Jewish culture and learning at the time, often referred to as the "Jerusalem of Europe" — where he joined the Ha-Shomer ha-Za'ir youth movement and attended the University of Vilna as an art student.
Exactly four years younger, Vitka Kempner was born on the same day in the Polish town of Kalish, located near the Polish-German border. As a teen, Vitka joined the militarist Betar movement, later switching to Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir at the behest of her friends.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Kalish fell and Vitka escaped to Vilna with a number of other youngsters, including her younger brother. Vilna was still a free city, and served as a hub for the various Zionist youth movements searching for passage to Palestine, away from the troubles of Europe.
Then, in 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union, occupying Vilna and forcing its Jews into a ghetto. Abba Kovner, who watched through his window as Nazi soldiers tore an infant from a mother’s arms and smashed it against a wall , had no illusions about the intentions of the occupiers. Hearing rumors of killings and mass graves in Ponar1, Kovner and his youth group friends realized that armed resistance was the only possible course.
With these rousing words, spoken at a soup kitchen on December 31st of 1941, Kovner galvanized the youth movements and the United Partisan Organization, or FPO (Fareynigte Partizaner Organizatsye) for short, was formed. Their first commander was Yitzhak Wittenberg. Their only objective was armed resistance – anything else was seen as a waste of time. They snuck out of the ghetto to execute sabotage missions, manufactured bombs, trained fighters, set up illegal printing presses, and acquired weapons that were smuggled into the ghetto in false-bottomed coffins or through the sewers.
Vitka Kempner was responsible for the FPO's first act of sabotage; smuggling a homemade bomb out of the ghetto and blowing up a Nazi train line. The Germans did not even suspect Vilna’s Jews – organized partisan resistance simply wasn’t on their radar yet.
The FPO continually pleaded with the Jews of Vilna to join the partisans in a popular uprising, but the majority of the Jewish population actually considered the rebels a liability and a danger to the ghetto’s survival. The Germans reinforced this notion with pressure on the local Judenrat. Finally, after some skirmishes with the FPO, the Germans threatened the ghetto with total liquidation, which led to Yitzhak Wittenberg’s voluntary surrender; he was then promptly tortured and killed by the Gestapo. Before he surrendered, however, Wittenberg appointed Kovner as the new leader of the FPO.
The Germans liquidated the ghetto anyway, deporting its 12,000 remaining inhabitants. The FPO evacuated hundreds of fighters out of the city through the sewers, as Kovner and others briefly fought the Germans from atop abandoned buildings. Vitka herself led the last group of fighters – including Kovner – out of the city to the Rudnicki forests. The FPO was thus transformed into a partisan unit, naming themselves Nakam "The Avengers".
Abba Kovner (center) and Vitka Kempner (right) with fellow partisan and life-long friend Rozka Korczak.
The couple saw Vilna liberated in 1944, entering the city with Soviet troops. Gathering the surviving members of their old youth group, Kovner helped organize the Beriha2 movement, which helped smuggle hundreds of thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe into British-mandated Palestine. Kovner and Kempner also organized a secret revenge unit, which sought to poison German POWs at a Nuremberg camp (the accounts on the effectiveness of this mission vary, though hundreds of POWs fell ill and had to be hospitalized).
Eventually, Kovner and Kempner were smuggled into Palestine, where they married. During the Israeli War of Independence, Kovner went on to lead the Givati brigade, and wrote ‘battle pages’, which contained morale-boosting essays and news from the Egyptian front.
He went on to testify at the Eichmann trial in 1961, play a major role in the construction and design of several Holocaust museums, and write several books and poems that recount his experiences, for which he won the 1970 Israel Prize in Literature. He lived on a Kibbutz with Vitka and other survivors from the underground until his death in 1987 from cancer.
Though she initially had a hard time adjusting to the Kibbutz life, and suffered from health problems, Vitka found her calling when she started helping children with their studies, and eventually turned to the field of special education. At age 45, she went on to study clinical psychology, receiving a degree from Bar Ilan University and developed a new form of non-verbal color-based therapy. She passed away on February 15, 2012, on the Kibbutz she called home for more than fifty years.
Abba and Vitka are survived by four grandchildren and leave behind a proud legacy of survival and resistance.
2. Jewish partisan Allen Small credits the Beriha with helping him escape from the Soviet Army.
Thursday, March 2, 2017
The eldest of four children, Sonya Oshman (z''l) was born in 1922 to a family of wealthy Novogrudok merchants. Novogrudok was a Polish town with a population in the thousands, approximately half of whom were Jewish. The Gorodinskys were well-respected, and Sonya’s father was occasionally called upon to mediate tensions between the town’s Polish and Jewish communities.
Sonya had planned to enroll in medical school in Bialystok the year that the Soviets invaded. Although the Soviets deported many Jews to Siberia, the Gorodinskys were left alone. Life changed drastically when the Nazis occupied Poland in the summer of 1941. They systematically murdered most of the town’s Jewish population, including Sonya’s youngest brother and grandparents.
By May of 1943, only 500 Jews remained in Novogrudok– mostly skilled laborers and their families. The Nazis confined them to the city's courthouse, where they lived in squalid conditions in what became a makeshift ghetto. On May 7th, the Nazis conducted another massacre, reducing the ghetto population by half. Following this massacre, the remaining 250 Jews began plotting their escape. The initial plan to storm the courthouse gates fell through when the Nazis discovered their plot. Instead, the escapees decided to dig a tunnel underneath the ghetto through to the woods; a slow, stealthy escape through a hidden tunnel would give the sick and the elderly enough time to get out.
The work was difficult and dangerous. The excess earth had to be disposed of, and the summer rains threatened to collapse the tunnel. To avoid suspicious dirt stains, those digging wore burlap sacks – or dug naked. Even in these dire conditions, Sonya found a ray of hope when she befriended and fell in love with Aaron Oshman during the time they spent digging together. They would later marry. Just a month before the escape, Sonya’s father was transferred to another ghetto, along with a handful of other skilled workers. She never saw him again.
The escape finally occurred on a rainy September night. About seventy of the escapees – including two of Sonya’s cousins and the tunnel’s mastermind – lost their lives when they accidentally ran back towards the ghetto and were shot by the guards, who mistook them for ambushing partisans. Most of the other escapees, including Sonya, eventually made it to the relative safety of the Bielski partisan camp. There, she was reunited with her one surviving brother Shaul and with Aaron.
As a member of the Bielski partisan group, Sonya performed many important duties and was instrumental in safeguarding the camp population by standing sentry.
After the war ended, Aaron and Sonya traveled across Europe, finally making it to a displaced person’s camp in Italy. Their first child was born shortly before they arrived in the United States and settled in Brooklyn.
Sonya dedicated her life to sharing her story and to teaching people about the resistance of the Jewish partisans. She traveled extensively and spoke in schools, synagogues, and community centers across the country.
Sonya and Aaron were married for 56 years, had two sons Matthew and Theodore, and four grandchildren. For more on the inspiring life of Sonya Oshman, the Novogrudok tunnel escape, and the Bieslki brigade, please watch the JPEF documentary, A Partisan Returns: The Legacy of Two Sisters. and read Gila Lyon's excellent biography in Tablet magazine.
Sadly, Sonia passed away on March 2, 2012.
Monday, February 27, 2017
— Rae Kushner.
Reichel "Rae" Kushner, was born to Nashum and Hinda Kushner, on February 27, 1923, in Novogrudok, Poland. The second-oldest of four children, she had one brother Channon, and two sisters, Chana and Lisa. Her family resided in, and contributed to, a thriving Jewish community of about 6,000 members, which also compromised just over half of the entire population. The Kushner family had a strong, middle class foundation built on home, embraced by the community and her father's thriving fur business.
In September of 1939, just after the signing of what was known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the Eastern part of Poland was invaded by Soviet Troops, and life for young Rae Kushner and her family changed drastically. Rae expressed thereafter, that survival under Soviet occupation was relatively "tolerable" in comparison to what took place after the Nazi invasion. These life altering episodes began June 22, 1941, during World War II, with the launch of Operation Barbarossa, during which Nazi troops aggressively attacked occupied Soviet territories. Though rumors from the West, of massive and barbaric killings, had reached Novogrudok by that point, few Jews actually believed that the Germans would carry out such atrocities.
Following several massacres, the surviving Jews were forced into provisional ghettos in a suburb of Novogrudok. Rae, her family, and many others, were forced to crowd into the city’s courthouse, and were inflicted with preposterous living conditions. During this time they instigated a plan of escape from captivity. Unfortunately, Nazi troops were often "entertained" with the weekly slaying of large numbers of Jews; which subsequently lead to the untimely deaths of Rae's mother Hinda and eldest sister Chana, during one of these cruel and fatal disseminations, on May 7th, 1943.
Starting in the middle of May, the remaining Jews dug a narrow tunnel during the nights, from the courthouse to a nearby forest, using tools made in the ghetto workshops, and hiding the dirt in the walls of buildings. Rae, along with her remaining family and approximately 600 others, helped to execute the escape, when the route was finally completed. The passage was only large enough for one person to crawl through, and of the 600 only about 250 were able to reach the forest. Many of the escapees were met with darkness, disorientation and even gunfire, and only 170 survived. Rae’s brother Channon was among those who escaped, but then lost his life. Losing his glasses during the crawl through the tunnel, he became disoriented and afflicted by the heinous conditions of the forest.
Rae and her surviving family spent the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, hidden in the cold, dark, dense woods. She and her younger sister grew famished, "it was in those forest, and in those moments of pain and hunger, when those men and women were digging for their lives, that it became evident that it was either Israel, or nothing". Determined to live another day, they eventually made their way to the home of an unknown ally. The woman fed them and allowed them to sleep in her stable with the cows for one week — a risk that carried the penalty of a violent death.
Shortly thereafter, Rae, her family and others from Novogrudok, sought refuge with a partisan group lead by Tuvia Bielski. The Bielski Partisans managed to shelter over 1,200 Jews, Rae regularly stood guard and often cooked camp meals, consisting of mostly potatoes grown in the surrounding forest, soup and small pieces of bread. During that time, Rae became better acquainted Joseph Kushner, whom she knew prior to the war. They fell in love and were married in August of 1945, a little over a year after the Bielski camp was liberated by the Red Army. Joseph and Rae became one, among the many partisan couples, who "found love in the forests".
Post war, Rae returned to her hometown of Novogrudok, only to find it destroyed and in complete devastation. She and the remaining members of the Kushner family ended up in an Italian displacement camp for three years. It was there that Rae gave birth to her daughter Linda, the first of her four children.
In 1949, the family was able to relocate from Europe to New York where Rae gave birth to three more children, two sons, Murray and Charles, and a second daughter, Esther. Rae passed away in 2004, but her name lives on with great relevance and influence today. The Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, New Jersey, is one of the most prestigious Jewish Schools on the East Coast, with over 850 students attending.
For more information on Rae, including seven videos of her speaking about her experiences, please visit the JPEF partisan pages. Rae is also featured in JPEF's short film A Partisan Returns — you can find it on our films page.
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
— Mira Shelub.
A Polish Jew born in what is now Belarus, Mira Shelub joined a partisan group that operated in the forest near her native Zdziedciol at the age of 18. With her family, she escaped Zdziedciol’s ghetto in 1942 as the Germans began killing off the population.
Mira’s group engaged in sabotage against the Nazis and their Polish collaborators by disrupting communications and transportation to the war front. They blew up trains, attacked police stations, and stole food that had been provided for the Germans by peasants.
In Mira’s group, women comprised about a quarter of the partisans. They did the cooking, took care of the laundry and provided other vital support.
On a few attacks Mira carried extra ammunition for her husband’s machine gun, but usually stayed behind to help with work at the camp. In summer the unit slept on the ground in the open forest; in winter they took refuge in underground huts (called zemlyankas), or with sympathetic peasant families. Constant movement was a necessity to avoid detection. When it snowed, they had to alter their tracks into confusing patterns so that they could not be followed. Mira recounts,
Mira recounted the extraordinary story of her partisan experience in her recently publish memoir, "Never the Last Road: A Partisan's Memoir".
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Mira Shelub, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan.
Thursday, May 5, 2016
This mini-biography tells the story of two Jewish partisans in Poland who fought in Chiel Grynspan's unit and later married one another.
Jewish partisans Rose Duman and Joe Holm were born in neighboring villages near Zaliscze, Poland. In 1941, Germans killed Joe's mother and five brothers, as well as 20 other members of his family. At 19, he entered the forest, where he knew other Jews were gathering.
Joe Holm met Chiel Grynspan and other partisans in the forest, where he proved himself skilled with a gun, and adept at demolition. Holm had two roles: his extensive knowledge of the forest and local villages made Holm an invaluable guide for his group. Holm also traveled in and out of the forest, finding food and medical supplies necessary for the unit's survival.
Near Zaliscze, Rose’s family owned a prosperous farm, where Joe would often stay overnight on Shabbat. When partisan groups began allowing a few women to join, Joe appeared on Rose's doorstep. He said, “I'm going; you come with me.”
As partisans, Rose and Joe carried out dozens of missions. Once, traveling with a Polish general into the forest, their group was ambushed. Joe and Rose ran through gunfire, and managed to deliver the General safely to the camp. Later, Rose found bullet holes through her sweater, as a testament to their narrow escape. In another narrow escape, Joe Holm and his cousin Jack Pomeranc stood before a firing squad with 80 other partisans, and prepared to be executed. Just before the signal to fire was given, Joe said, “Watch me, and do what I do.” He wrestled a gun from a German soldier and started firing. Joe Holm was shot in the arm, but they and two other prisoners escaped. All the rest were killed.
Rose and Joe stayed with the Grynspan unit for the duration of the war, living in the forest for over three years. Later, Rose and Joe married and left Poland for Germany, eventually emigrating to the United States. In New York, they built a family and a successful business. Joe Holm died in 2009. They were married for 65 years.
“We survived with our bare hands,” Rose recalls. “I just wanted to live, to see the end of Hitler,” she adds. “I was angry. It was important to me to do something, before I died.” On teaching the history and legacy of the Jewish partisans, Rose Holm says, “It is important to teach kids to fight back. To speak up.”
Thursday, December 24, 2015
— Eta Wrobel.
Born December 28th, 1918 in Lokov, Poland, Eta Wrobel was the only child in a family of ten to survive the Holocaust. In her youth, she was a free spirit who defied authority. As Eta puts it she was “born a fighter.” Her father, a member of the Polish underground, taught her the importance of helping people, no matter the circumstance.
In early 1940, Eta started work as a clerk in an employment agency. Soon she began her resistance by creating false identity papers for Jews. In October 1942, Eta’s ghetto was liquidated and the Jews were forced into concentration camps.
In the transition, Eta and her father escaped to the woods.
Life in the woods around Lokov was extremely treacherous. Eta helped organize an exclusively Jewish partisan unit of close to eighty people. Her unit stole most of their supplies, slept in cramped quarters, and had no access to medical attention. At one point Eta was shot in the leg and dug the bullet out of her leg with a knife. The unit set mines to hinder German movement and to cut off supply routes. Unlike the other seven women in the unit, Eta refused to cook or clean. Her dynamic personality and military skills allowed for this exception.
She was active on missions with the men and made important strategic decisions.
In 1944, when the Germans left Lokov, Eta came out of hiding and was asked to be mayor of her town. Shortly after, Eta met Henry, her husband to be. They were married on December 20, 1944. In 1947 Eta and Henry moved to the United States. She and Henry had three children, nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Eta summarized her heroic years with the partisans by saying simply, “The biggest resistance that we could have done to the Germans was to survive.”
In 2006, her memoir My Life My Way The Extraordinary Life of a Jewish Partisan in World War II was published. Eta died on May 26, 2008 at her home in upstate New York.
Visit www.jewishpartisans.org for more about Eta Wrobel, including seven videos of her reflecting on her time as a partisan. Eta is also featured in an Emmy-nominated documentary from PBS entitled Resistance: Untold Stories of Jewish Partisans.
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Thursday, February 20, 2014
In her moving memoir, author and artist Paula Burger shares the harrowing experience of a child’s survival during the Holocaust.
The first child of Wolf and Sarah Koladicki, Paula Burger was born in 1934 in the town of Novogrudok, which had a vibrant Jewish community numbering around six thousand – half of the town’s population. Her father was a savvy businessman who owned a small grocery store and restaurant; he also traded in cattle and lumber, and managed the family’s ranch. Paula fondly remembers her pre-war childhood: her parents working together at the store, the ice cream from her aunt’s shop, and in 1939, the arrival of her baby brother Isaac.
But life as she knew it ended on July 3, 1941, when the German army occupied Novogrudok. Two weeks later, they executed the community’s professionals – fifty-two men in all, including rabbis, doctors, and lawyers – in the town’s main marketplace.
In the middle of a bitter cold night, several months later in December, the Nazis snuck in and rounded up the remainder of Novogrudok’s Jews. Paula’s father was not home at the time, but her mother Sarah, with young Isaac in her arms and Paula by her side, succeeded in escaping. During that raid, later called “Black Monday,” some four thousand Jews died at the hands of the occupiers. Afterwards, the remaining Jews were divided between two camps.
The Koladicki family managed to avoid incarceration in the ghettos for over four months. Once inside though, Wolf was permitted to leave as needed to attend to his various enterprises, all the while formulating a plan to escape with his family. A Polish neighbor, desirous of the Koladicki land, deceitfully informed the Nazis of Wolf’s involvement with the resistance movement. The Nazis searched for him, but soon grew tired of the unsuccessful hunt, and decided to arrest Sarah with the intent of extracting her husband’s whereabouts through interrogation and torture. Since she had no idea where Wolf was, the torture brought no results. The Nazis kept her in holding for six weeks, forcing her to serve as a German translator. Then, on Yom Kippur of 1942, they shot her.
By this time, Paula’s father did in fact become a member of the resistance by joining the Bielski Otriad in the Naliboki Forest. Wolf arranged to smuggle Paula and Isaac out of the ghetto with the help of a Polish farmer. The farmer’s job was to deliver water to the ghetto, so he smuggled young Paula and Isaac out of the ghetto in a dank, empty water barrel. They had to hide in total silence inside the cramped confines of the barrel for many hours. Paula knew that any sound they made could mean certain death, and she held Isaac tight to keep him absolutely still and calm.
After a night hidden in a barn, and another day of concealed travel, the siblings rejoined their father at the Bielski partisan camp. They remained with the group throughout the war, traveling with them when they could, and hiding in forest shelters when harsh winter conditions prevented them from doing so. Though she was only seven years old when they joined with the Bielskis, Paula actively contributed to armed resistance against the enemy, using her small fingers to pack explosives into yellow bricks, which were later used to blow up and derail Nazi supply trains.
Instead of returning to Novogrudok after the war’s end, Paula’s father led his family to Lida, and then across the border to Czechoslovakia. Aided only by their wits and the kindness of strangers, the family made their way to the American Zone in West Germany. They spent several years in the DP camp, where young Paula became fluent in English. Then in 1949, they voyaged to the US and joined their relatives in Chicago. There, in high school, Paula began to hone her natural talent as an artist.
As a child, Paula’s most prized possession was a box of colored pencils with which she would draw for hours on end. Although she did not begin painting professionally until she retired, Paula was always painting pictures in her mind, and maintained an overwhelming desire to act on this passion. In a journal she kept as a young woman, Paula wrote, “I hope I don’t die before I get to paint.”
The zeal for creative expression coursed through the veins of both siblings. Though successful in business, they continually pursued their artistic passions. While Paula painted colorful landscapes, still lifes, and Judaic-themed images, Isaac applied his beautiful singing voice to chazanut, and has now served as a professional cantor for over fifty years.
Paula’s art has shown in galleries throughout Colorado, and her works are included in numerous public, private and corporate collections throughout the world. After a childhood filled with dark images of horror and loss, Paula’s goal is to capture the beauty in life through her art with the bold use of color and imagery. You can view her catalogue at paulaburger.com.
Paula Burger has been speaking to students’ civic groups for over twenty years. Her 2013 autobiography, Paula’s Window: Papa, the Bielski Partisans, and A Life Unexpected, vividly recalls her childhood experience of survival in the forests during World War II.
Sunday, August 4, 2013
For partisan groups, fighting the powerful and well-equipped German army in open combat was typically not an option. Partisans spent much of their time hiding from the enemy, and discovery of their whereabouts was a major, ever-looming threat. The Nazis used local spies, bribes, aerial surveillance, and forest sweeps to root out partisan groups hiding in the countryside, so the partisan had to constantly be on high alert.
Jewish partisans had to fear for their lives not just because they were fighting against the occupying army but because of their Jewish identity. All partisans1 had to be wary of enemy bullets, lice and typhoid, and of leaving footprints in the fresh snow, but Jewish partisans faced an added threat. For many Jews, their accent, the way they looked or dressed, their unfamiliarity with non-Jewish society, and a myriad of subtle details marked them as "other". This otherness exposed them to mortal danger – and not just from the Nazis and their collaborators, but also from unfriendly members of the Armia Krajowa, antisemitic peasants, and (if they were in a mixed otriad) even their fellow partisans. (For more information on this subject, see our Antisemitism in the Partisans E-Learning course.)
Even a doctor's oath to "do no harm" was no guarantee of safety. After being wounded, Norman Salsitz had to seek treatment from a local doctor – a known antisemite. Norman's anecdote provides a stark illustration of the ever-present danger Jewish partisans found themselves in:
[We] went to the doctor and she said, “I have somebody who was wounded yesterday. He’s from the AK,” if he will look at me. He said yes. She brought me over and he started…he said, “Let down your pants.” So I was afraid that he does it purposely to see if I’m Jewish...I took out a hand grenade and I took out the pin and I said, “If you do something I will let the pin out and we all be killed.”
Identity was treated as a matter of life-and-death – not just by the Nazis, but also by most other groups hostile to the Jews as well, such as the various ultra-right wing nationalist groups in Poland, Ukraine, and the Balkans. Though many Jews lived in their own communities, segregated from the gentile population, they were nonetheless well-known by the locals, and could frequently be singled out by their accents2, names that looked or sounded "Jewish", and appearance.
Sonia Orbuch was born Sarah Shainwald, but the commander of her otriad made her change her given name to the more common and less Jewish-sounding Russian name Sonia – to keep her safe from antisemites. “Here there are no Sarahs,” he explained to her. To keep himself out of trouble in Moscow, Leon Senders concealed his Jewish identity by simply bleaching his hair with peroxide. Likewise, Ben Kamm excelled at smuggling food through the countryside because of his blue eyes and blond hair.
Fluency in other languages helped many partisans avoid danger - particularly if they could speak without a Yiddish or foreign accent. Running away from his village after the Nazis rounded up all his classmates, 15 year old Joe Kubryk found work as a farmhand with a Ukrainian farmer who never suspected he was Jewish – all because Joe spoke fluent Ukrainian. Growing up in Metz on the northern border of France, Bernard Musmand learned to speak German in school at a young age. Later, while running dangerous missions as a courier for the Sixieme3, he used his fluency in German to dispel suspicions about his identity – usually, with a friendly request for the time or for a match.
Bernard was not only fluent in German – he was also well-versed in Catholicism, another useful instrument of disguise. When his family fled to southern France, he had to pose as a Catholic to attend the local boarding school. He was so diligent at keeping up appearances that the priests actually asked him if he was interested in going into the seminary. Leon Idas, a Greek partisan, grew up attending a private school run by the local Orthodox church. Consequently, he was able to use the religious knowledge he learned there to keep his Jewish identity secret when he joined the partisans.
Though Norman Salsitz was already a partisan, joining the AK was the only way he felt he could strike an effective blow against the Nazis – to do so was the patriotic duty of any able Pole. However, he could not do so without concealing his Jewish identity. He managed to join by assuming the name (and ID card) of another AK soldier. Along with Joseph Greenblatt, Norman is one of the many Jewish partisans who worked for the AK under an assumed Christian name. Norman’s allegiances were tested when a command was given to murder a group of Jews hiding on a farm. He volunteered for the mission – after killing his Polish companions, he rescued the Jews and fled to his original partisan unit. There are many other instances of Jews infiltrating the AK under Christian identities, acquiring rank and status, and using their power to help other Jews escape persecution and death.
Nazi Germany’s plans for the occupied territories included specific methods for singling out and isolating the Jews, such as the infamous yellow badges. When Frank Blaichman smuggled food through the countryside, his preferred method of disguise was to remove the badge from his clothing and hide it until he returned home. Though it may sound simple in hindsight, such an act was punishable by severe beatings, imprisonment, and even death. He could have easily been found out - travel permits were required for even the most routine trips out of town. Frank had no official documents, but he did have a backup: his fluency in Polish allowed him to talk his way out of trouble if he was ever stopped.
The falsification of identity papers was vital to the underground. Romi Cohn was instrumental in providing Jewish refugees with false documents that identified them as Christians. The forgeries were of a very high quality – a connection at the local Gestapo headquarters supplied him with German seals to stamp the documents. Working at an employment agency in the early 1940s, Eta Wrobel used her clerical skills to forge identity papers for Jews. Even the famed mime Marcel Marceau – himself a Jewish partisan – utilized his drawing skills to make false identity cards for Jewish children.
Not surprisingly, a number of Jewish partisans served the cause as spies. Their combined skills – as forgers, as polyglots, as people used to living in a constant state of disguise – put them in a unique position. Even though he was only 15 at the time, Joe Kubryk was trained in the arts of espionage. While Leon Senders was valuable to Moscow as a radio operator, his real art was subterfuge. Leon's knowledge of German, Russian, Polish, and Lithuanian helped him fool his enemies and make new friends. He successfully built up a network of informants he used to acquire sensitive information that was instrumental in bombing the German supply lines. Wearing a tattered shepherd’s coat, Leon was so good at disguising himself he was once kicked out of a farmer’s house because a German officer, who wished to eat lunch there, objected to the presence of “Lithuanian swine” at his meal.
In a war where millions of civilians were murdered for no reason other than their identity – be it ethnic, religious, sexual, or political – the means and the opportunity to conceal and change it often meant the difference between life and death. Even the smallest adjustment could have major consequences: Leon Bakst’s father was a merchant, but when the SS asked for his occupation during the first roundup of the Jews in his hometown of Ivie, he simply answered “brush-maker”. He reasoned that the occupiers would have more use for a brush-maker than a merchant. He was correct: his life was spared that day.
1. Out of the hundreds of thousands of partisans active during the war, only 20,000-30,000 were Jewish.
2. The primary language spoken in Eastern European shtetls was Yiddish, and though not unheard of, unaccented fluency in languages like Polish or Ukrainian was not common.
3. La Sixieme was the underground incarnation of Eclaireurs Israélites, a French Jewish scouting organization. The EI went underground in 1942 and became known as the “Sixth Bureau”, smuggling children and adults into Switzerland, hiding Jews, providing forged documents, and even taking part in battles for the liberation of France.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
When the French police arrested more than 13,000 Parisian Jews at the behest of Germany during a massive raid on July 16, 1942, Sophie Schwartz-Micnic took action to protect as many children as possible. She and her fellow resistors provided hundreds of children with fake identities and hid them with host families, saving their lives.
René Goldman, himself a rescued child currently living in Canada, is the author of a book on Sophie’s fascinating life story. In Une femme juive dans les tourmentes du siècle dernier: Sophie Schwartz-Micnic, 1905-1999, he tells the story of a woman who he considers to be his adoptive mother.
Sophie Schwartz was born in 1905, in an area of Poland belonging to the Russian Empire at the time. She grew up in a well-off, Orthodox Jewish family with her seven siblings. Horrified by the Great War, she became interested in politics at age 13 and joined the youth section of the Bund, a secular Jewish socialist party. When she turned 15, her parents could not afford to send her to school anymore, so Sophie started working in a curtain factory, where she joined a union. These were the beginnings of her involvement in activism, which would continue for most of her life.
At age 19, her father banned her from political activism after she was briefly arrested. She defied him and left the family house for an autonomous life, emigrating to western Europe, far away from her parents’ worries.
Sophie would never see her parents again; they perished with three of her siblings in 1942 after they were deported.
In 1927, after spending some time in Holland, Sophie emigrated to Belgium. At once, she got involved in both Jewish and communist organizations, including the Kultur-Liga, where she met the like-minded Leizer Micnik, her future husband. Leizer’s involvement in a trade union would later force them to leave Belgium and immigrate to France. He was arrested and handed off to the Germans by the French police in 1942, never to be seen again.
During her lifetime, Sophie was very devoted to the Jewish community, and to all deprived families in general. When World War II broke out, she immediately took part in the underground: she headed a committee to aid women whose husbands were taken by the police and ran an illegal printing shop producing Yiddish pamphlets and false identity cards. The soul of her work, however, became saving Jewish children, and she created several homes for those who had lost their families. After the aforementioned July raid – known as the infamous Vel' d'Hiv Roundup – she worked tirelessly to smuggle hundreds of children into hiding among the peasantry. The following year, she organized a daring operation to rescue children from the asylums set up by the UGIF1, escorting 63 of them out of the facilities by female underground members posing as relatives. She eventually became the head of the CCE (Central Commission for Children) that reportedly supported several hundreds of children – 450 of them in 1949 alone.
In several passages of the book, she argues that being Jewish pushed her into believing in communism; she actually saw this as a hope for equal rights and a better life, not only for the Jews, but for all mankind. Though she would become ideologically disillusioned following her awareness of Stalin’s crimes and her subsequent expulsion from Poland in 1968, it is obvious that the various organizations she took part in gave her an effective network and resources that she could rely on to assist the many operations she organized to save lives and, after the war, make this world a better place to live.
After being expelled from Poland, she spent the rest of her life back in France, surrounded by her old friends and fellow underground members. Because of her past with the resistance, she obtained a residence permit, and then French nationality. René Goldman, the author of her biography, kept in touch with her as she became older, up until her death in 1999 at age 93. He was called upon to read an eulogy at her funeral.
According to René Goldman, Sophie never gave up her optimism and her generosity, even after the many disillusions she went through. He states, “Throughout her life, she had not only the courage of her ideas, but the courage and intellectual probity to recognize that it was wrong to believe in an ideology that was a serious and sad mistake.” He adds: “Sophie was an example of unity of thought and action, which, according to the teaching of Judaism, is the essence of integrity.”
*“Tout au long de sa vie, elle avait eu non seulement le courage de ses idées, mais aussi ce même courage et la probité intellectuelle de reconnaître qu'elle avait eu tort de croire en une idéologie qui fut une grave et triste erreur.” L’auteur ajoute:“Sophie avait été un exemple d'unité de la pensée et de l'action, unité qui, au regard de l'enseignement du judaïsme, est l'essence même de l'intégrité.”
Reference: “Une femme juive dans les tourmentes du siècle dernier: Sophie Schwartz-Micnic, 1905-1999”, AGP : Paris, 2006.
— Written By Isaline Jaccard
1. The UGIF – or L'Union générale des israélites de France – was an organization created by French law in 1941 at the behest of occupying Germany. Its main purpose was to take control of all other Jewish organizations, social agencies, philanthropies – including their assets – and to oversee the administration of Jewish affairs while taking their cues from the Vichy regime and the Nazis. In effect, they were France’s nationwide equivalent to the Judenrat councils set up in the ghettoes of eastern Europe.